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Sundance Film Festival Unveils 2011 Competition Lineup

Fifty-eight movies vie for prizes in four categories.

Click here for the complete 2011 Sundance competition lineup

The Sundance Film Festival unveiled its official competition lineup Wednesday, and from the look of it filmmakers have traded guns for God and justice this past year.

Whereas the 2010 program was stuffed with war-related content such as Restrepo, The Dry Land and The Tillman Story, the 2011 lineup is rife with explorations of religion and the criminal justice system. Competition films such as Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut Higher Ground and Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene address issues of fanatical faith while the documentaries Crime After Crime from Yoav Potash and Hot Coffee from Susan Saladoff take hard looks at the vagaries of the courts.

“I don’t know how that entered into the psyche of our artist population,” says festival director John Cooper. “The financial crisis shocked America in a whole different way than even 9/11 did. It disturbed us. Our artists are feeling that. Maybe that’s why they’re looking at other American traditions and fundamental parts of who we are.”

The Park City showcase inevitably highlights the newest obsessions of the world’s filmmakers, and this year’s 27th annual program -- which runs January 20-30 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah—is no exception. But coming as it does in the midst of a mildly resurgent climate for independent film, the mood all around is one of focused optimism.

In the U.S. narrative competition, Amy Wendel’s Benavides Born follows a high school senior trying to earn a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin by winning the State Powerlifting Championship, Dee Rees’ Pariah looks at a Bronx teenager searching for sexual expression, Azazel Jacobs’ Terri shows the relationship between an alienated teen and his school’s vice-principal and Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance details a wealthy Iranian family struggling to contain a teenager's growing sexual rebellion.

Youngsters are in for other difficult trials in Gavin Wiesen’s Homework, Elgin James’ Little Birds and Andrew Okpeaha MacLean’s On the Ice. Meanwhile, a potential apocalypse weighs on a working-class husband and father in Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, and a policeman races to find out what’s behind a man’s threatened suicide jump in Matthew Chapman’s The Ledge.

Ben Foster (HERE), Esai Morales (Gun Hill Road), Emma Roberts (Homework), Patrick Wilson (The Ledge), Kate Bosworth (The Untitled Sam Levinson Project, Little Birds), Michael Shannon (Take Shelter) and John C. Reilly (Terri) make starring appearances along with Demi Moore, Ellen Burstyn, Terrence Howard, Leslie Mann and Thomas Haden Church. Winter’s Bone star Jennifer Lawrence returns in the competition film Like Crazy, from Drake Doremus, and John Hawkes, also in Bone, returns in Higher Ground and Martha Marcy May Marlene.

The fun for the Sundance staff is the months of movie watching and debate that ultimately whittles down the list. “You get into some heated arguments,” admits programming director Trevor Groth. “The passionate arguments for usually win out over the passionate arguments against.” Cooper notes that the biggest battles take place over the selection of films for the U.S. documentary competition program, since there are always so many fascinating issues on display that appeal to one or another of the programming team.

Of the 16 films that made the cut, there are those that focus on music (Michael Rapaport’s Beats, Rhymes and Life, about A Tribe Called Quest; Morgan Neville’s Troubadours, about James Taylor and Carole King); media (Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation, about the media’s portrayals of women; Andrew Rossi’s Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times); and the environment (Marshall Curry’s If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front; Bill Haney’s The Last Mountain, about a battle for the future over the last great mountain in Appalachia).

As always, the more whimsical has its place, as well. Constance Marks’BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer’s Journey takes a look at theman behind the Sesame Street icon, Cindy Meehl’s Buck is about a master horse trainer who espouses non-violence, and Jon Foy’s Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles explores a rare urban phenomenon.

“[Tiles] really captures such a great spirit about these guys who are trying to solve a mystery,” says Groth. “In this day and age, with Google and the Internet, there are very few mysteries that you can’t solve at your fingertips. We really liked the spirit of this film.”

As part of its new approach of jumping right in and forgoing the traditional opening night film, the first Thursday evening will showcase one narrative film and one documentary from both the U.S. and world cinema competitions, as well as one shorts program. Those movies have not yet been named.

In total, the four competition categories -- U.S. and world cinema narrative and documentary -- include 58 films, with 25 made by first-time filmmakers. All of the U.S. entries are world premieres. (The fest also presents films in six out-of-competition categories, which will be unveiled Thursday.)